A Troubling Legal Precedent in Texas

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Twelve years ago a 17 year-old girl in a Pentecostal church was restrained for several hours on two different occasions for the purposes of exorcism. She experienced rope-burns, carpet burns, and bruises. Feeling emotionally traumatized by this involuntary action, the girl was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and her parents sued the church for damages and won. However, the Texas Supreme Court has now reversed that decision, saying that the previous ruling unfairly impinged on the First Amendment rights of the church.

“…the state Supreme Court dismissed Schubert’s case in a 6-3 ruling, saying her lawsuit violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections on religious expression — the latest in a string of decisions limiting judicial oversight of religious institutions and practice. “The case, as tried, presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unconstitutionally entangle the court in matters of church doctrine,” said the majority opinion, written by Justice David Medina.”

All three opposing judges, including Chief Justice Jefferson, filed dissents. Arguing that this decision will sanction abuse, so long as the offending organization holds a fig-leaf of religion.

“After today, a tortfeasor need merely allege a religious motive to deprive a Texas court of jurisdiction to compensate his fellow congregant for emotional damages. This sweeping immunity is inconsistent with United States Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the protections our Constitution affords religious conduct. The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion’s name. Because the Court’s holding precludes recovery of emotional damages – even for assault and other serious torts – where the defendant alleges that the underlying assault was religious in nature, I respectfully dissent.”

While this case happened within a Pentecostal church community, one could hypothetically imagine scenarios involving the modern Pagan community that could echo this young woman’s trauma. Covener held against his or her will due to a “psychic attack”? Sexual misconduct? Abusive initiations? Inappropriate emotional control? So long as the rest of the group testifies that these practices are normal and accepted by the group, the abusers in question could escape prosecution or having to pay damages. Worse, imagine the fate of Christian minors interested in Paganism who could now be subjected to traumatic “exorcisms” or “re-education” with no recourse after the fact.

“Because providing a remedy for the very real, but religiously motivated, emotional distress in this case would require us to take sides in what is essentially a religious controversy, we cannot resolve that dispute,” the Supreme Court ruled. “Determining the circumstances of (Schubert’s) emotional injuries would, by its very nature, draw the court into forbidden religious terrain.”

While I admire judicial neutrality when it comes to making decisions regarding religion (we don’t want judges to favor one faith over another). This carries that ethic too far. Using “neutrality” as a way to avoid causing controversy allows for a multitude of evils to flourish. Abuse done in the name of religion is still abuse. No still means no, even if your abuser thinks a demon said it, and separation of Church and State doesn’t mean religion is above the law or judgment. No religious faith should be a law unto itself, and I can only hope this case goes to the Supreme Court and is overturned.